He Who Would Teach Men to Die Would Teach Them to Live

The Seventh Seal

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life,
never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best’s a gay good night and quickly turn away.

– W. B. Yeats

As a college student long ago in the 1950s I nurtured the thought of one day becoming a writer, and on the advice of an instructor in sophomore English Lit., I attempted to form the habit of keeping a journal. I didn’t know what it was that I hoped to write – poetry in imitation of Ezra Pound, novels along the lines of Balzac or F. Scott Fitzgerald, maybe stories like those of J. D. Salinger – and so I was glad to be told that it didn’t matter what went down on the page. Anything at all, the man said. Describe something you saw yesterday in the street, copy out five paragraphs by Jane Austen, reconstruct a conversation overheard in a men’s room or on a train, make a list of exotic birds, count the number of windows in Woolsey Hall, compose a letter to Rita Hayworth; learn to put one word after another, like your feet in your shoes, and maybe you’ll find out that you have something to say.

That the odds didn’t favor the speculation I could infer from the tone of the instructor’s voice, but off and on over the past fifty years I’ve kept up the practice of salvaging stray thoughts and random observations from the remains of a week or a day. Sometimes I’ve let three or four years lapse between entries; at other times, fortified by a surplus of dutiful resolve, I’ve made daily notations for periods as long as nine or twelve months. The focus has shifted with the books that I happen to be reading, with the trend of the headlines, and with the changes in venue accompanying the transfer from a single to a married state, but I notice that I retain an interest in the last words spoken by people bidding farewell to their lives and times from the height of a scaffold or the deck of a sinking ship, outward bound on the voyage to who knows where. The dying of the light was a topic to which I was introduced in grammar school by a Latin teacher fond of quoting Montaigne as well as Cicero and Sophocles, and somewhere in sight of an eighth-grade blackboard I was given to understand that to learn how to die was to unlearn how to be a slave, that no man was to be counted happy until he was dead. The words made a greater impression than probably was intended or expected because I was raised in a family unincorporated into the body of Christ, and at the age of thirteen, it never once having occurred to me to consider the prospect of an afterlife, I knew that I lacked the documents required to clear customs in Heaven. Eternal life might have been granted to the Christian martyrs delivered to the lions in the Roman Colosseum, presumably also to Sir Thomas More, saying to the man with the axe while mounting the stair to his execution, “See me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself.” But without an insurance policy guaranteed by a church, how did one make a last stand worthy of Brian Donlevy confronted with thousands of Japs swarming ashore on Wake Island, or hit upon an exit line up to the standard of Oscar Wilde’s “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do”? The question came up during the year in college when I contracted a rare and particularly virulent form of meningitis. The doctors in the emergency room rated my chance of survival at nil or next to none, one of them telephoning my father in New York to say that his son would be gone within the hour and he could save himself the trouble of trying to get to New Haven before morning. It was a teaching hospital, and to the surprise of all present I responded to the infusion of several new drugs never before tested in combination, and for two days, drifting in and out of consciousness in a ward reserved for patients without hope of recovery, I had ample chance to think a great thought or turn a noble phrase. Nothing came to mind; there were no windows to count, no exotic bird at the foot of the bed. Nor do I remember being horrified. Astonished, not horrified. Here was death making routine hospital rounds – the man in the next bed died in the first night, the woman to his left on the second – and it was as if I was in a foreign country waiting to be approached by the skeletal figure with the scythe whom I’d seen in the fourteenth-century woodcuts illustrating the lectures in the history of medieval art. Apparently an old story, but one that, before being admitted to the hospital as a corpse in all but name, I hadn’t guessed was also my own, my own and that of every other living thing on earth at that moment on the road to the same tourist destination – once-in-a-lifetime, not-to-be-missed – that didn’t sell postcards and from whose sidewalk cafés no traveler returned.

Three months later I left the hospital knowing that my reprieve was temporary, subject to cancellation on short notice, and in the years since, I’ve tried to live every day in the present tense, piecing together the consolations of philosophy from writers choosing to look death in the face and to draw from the encounter the breath of life. The reluctance to do so I take to be a root cause of most of our twenty-first-century American sorrows (socioeconomic and aesthetic as well as cultural and political), and as a remedy for our chronic states of fear and trembling I know of none better than Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers, published last February by Vintage. The global economy at the time was sliding into the wine-dark sea of unfathomable debt, and here was Critchley on the boat deck of the Titanic cheerfully reminding the top-hatted Wall Street gentlemen that Diderot had choked to death on an apricot, that Heraclitus had suffocated in cow dung, and that Montesquieu died in the arms of his lover, leaving unfinished an essay on taste. A professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, Critchley declares his purpose on the first page of the introduction. Absent a philosophical coming to terms with death, we are, he says,

Led, on the one hand, to deny the fact of death and to run headlong into the watery pleasures of forgetfulness, intoxication and the mindless accumulation of money and possessions. On the other hand, the terror of annihilation leads us blindly into a belief in the magical forms of salvation and promises of immortality offered by certain varieties of traditional religion and many New Age (and some rather old age) sophistries.

The observation speaks not only to the heavy cost of our health-care systems and our childish war on terror but also to the current losses in the credit markets and to the incessant hawking of fairy tales that is the bone and marrow of most of our prime-time news and entertainment. Had Critchley been of a mind to do so, I don’t doubt that he could have assembled a five-volume treatise on any and all of the unhappy consequences, complete with many pages of statistical proof backed up with oracular mutterings from authorities both secular and divine. He chooses to do something more lighthearted and therefore more useful – to take note of the deaths of “190 or so” philosophers with the thought that by attending to the manner of their shufflings off the mortal coil his reader might profit by their example. He borrows the device from Montaigne’s essay on the uses of philosophy: “If I were a maker of books, I would make a register, with comments, of various deaths. He who would teach men to die would teach them to live.”

The dramatis personae in Critchley’s register of last scenes, some of them described in two or three paragraphs, others at the length of two or three pages, rounds up the usual suspects, among them a few women (Hipparchia, Madame du Châtelet, Hannah Arendt), several Christian saints (St. Paul, St. Anthony, Boethius), and a small number of Arabs and Chinese (Avicenna, Averroës, Confucius, Lao Tzu), but largely the company of dead white males (ancient Greek and modern German) embodying the tradition of Western philosophy as it has come down to us over the past 2,500 years from Thales of Miletus to Derrida and Rawls.

Some of the anecdotes were familiar, noted in my own lists of final departures – Socrates at the conclusion of the trial that condemned him to death, saying to his judges, “Now it is time that we were going, I to die and you to live; but which of us has the happier prospect is unknown to anyone but God”; Seneca commanded by the Emperor Nero to commit suicide, engaging his friends in easy conversation while the blood drained from his wrists and arms; Voltaire, irritated by a parish priest asking him if he believed in the divinity of Christ, saying, “In the name of God, Monsieur, don’t speak to me any more of that man and let me die in peace.” Most of the stories were ones I hadn’t known – David Hume shortly before he died in 1776 graciously entertaining James Boswell’s assurance of a soon-to-be-revealed afterlife on the ground that “it was possible that a piece of coal on the fire would not burn”; Jean Baudrillard, writing his last book, Cool Memories V, after having been diagnosed with the cancer that killed him, “Death orders matters well, since the very fact of your absence makes the world distinctly less worthy of being lived in.”

For Critchley’s purpose it doesn’t matter whether the “190 or so deaths” have been recorded elsewhere or whether some of his sources are probably apocryphal or possibly misinformed. The sum is greater than the parts because the truth to be told, by Cicero baring his neck to Antony’s centurion on the road to Naples as by Heinrich Heine dying of syphilis in nineteenth-century Paris, can be verified at so many points on the map of time. Critchley leafs through the pages of his register and concludes, as did Montaigne, that the consolation of philosophy is “the stillness of the soul’s dialogue with itself… It is the achievement of a calm that accompanies existing in the present without forethought or regret. I know of no other immortality.”

Neither do I. Which isn’t to say that I make myself an odds-on favorite to show even a semblance of the composure to which Critchley’s mortal philosophers bear immortal witness, or that having been granted a fifty-year extension on the deadline for a comfortable thought or a noteworthy phrase on my next consultation with the senior practitioner, an event now apt to take place sooner rather than later, I am anywhere within reach or in sight of the stillness of the soul conducive to poetry. But neither do I worry about missing the deadline. Certain only that the cause of my death is one that I can neither foresee nor forestall, I’m content to let the sleeping dog lie.

If the attitude is maybe nothing other than a new sophistry designed to excuse my refusal to quit smoking, one of Critchley’s proofs of the believing blindly in a magical form of salvation, it is also the refusal to inject myself with the fear of death that sells the financial, pharmaceutical, and political products guaranteed to restore the youthful bloom of immortality. I came of age during a decade when the answer to the question, “Why do I have to die?” was still being looked for in the laboratories of literature, the cutting-edge R&D to be found in the experiments conducted by Shakespeare, Dickens, Auden, and Yeats translating Sophocles. Over the course of the past fifty years the question has been referred to the cosmetic surgeons, the arms manufacturers, and the hedge-fund wizards, but I haven’t found my way to Jesus or lost the habit of reading the ancient writers unfamiliar with the modernized systems of risk-free metaphysics.

I know that dying is un-American, nowhere mentioned in our contractual agreement with providence, but to regard the mere fact of longevity as the supreme good – without asking why or to what end – strikes me as foolish, a misappropriation of time, thought, sentiment, electricity, and frequent-flier miles. Of the $2.4 trillion assigned last year to the care and feeding of our health-care apparatus, a substantial fraction paid the expenses of citizens in the last, often wretched, years of their lives. Who benefits from the inventory of suffering gathered in the Florida storage facilities? Seldom the corpses in waiting that serve as profit centers for the insurance companies; usually not the heirs of the estate placed as a burnt offering on the altar of Mammon in the temples of medical science.

Where then is the blessing to be found in the wish to live forever? Never before in the history of the world have so many people lived as long, as safely, or as freely as those of us now living in the United States. Never before in the history of the world have so many of those same people made themselves sick with the fears of an imaginary future. We magnify the threat in all the ills the flesh is heir to, surround ourselves with surveillance cameras, declare the war on terror against an unknown enemy and an abstract noun, buy from Bernie Madoff the elixirs of life everlasting. And what is it that we accomplish other than the destruction of our happiness as well as any hope of some sort of sustainable balancing of our account with nature, which, unlike the Obama Administration, isn’t in the business of arranging bailouts?

Absent a coming to terms with death, how do we address the questions of environmental degradation and social injustice certain to denominate the misfortunes of the twenty-first century? Our technologists provide us with new and improved weapons and information systems, our politicians with digitally enhanced sophistry and superstition, but it is from Critchley’s council of dead philosophers that we’re more likely to learn how not to murder ourselves with our fear of the dark.

Lewis Lapham
On Deadline
Harper’s Magazine, May 2009

Screen capture: The Dance of Death, from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957)

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